Apple TV

Apple and landline phones

I started writing this post six months ago and put it aside but I still like the idea.

We have two landlines from AT&T, the second line a holdover from the dialup days when we needed it so we could have voice and internet simultaneously. Trust me, we’re no fans of AT&T, the service isn’t great and its expensive (since starting this post I’ve dumped one of the lines, we now have one landline).

We have a Panasonic cordless 2-line phone with a base station and 2 satellite phones in other places in the house. Getting phone numbers into the auto-dial on this phone system or picking up voice mail or checking caller ID for recent missed calls is such a pain in the ass, it’s unbearable. And, of course, every phone maker has a different operating system and way of doing each of these things, there are no standards.

You might ask why, at this point, we haven’t bought into our cable company’s VOIP plan and the reason is simple: if power and/or cable go out we’re shit out of luck. In rural Northwest Connecticut we lose power more often than other places in the country although we don’t lose cable as often. So, we could put in cable phone (VOIP) with a battery backup and we’d save plenty of money and avoid AT&T but we’d still have to deal with landline-style phones. More on this below. And, yes, at some point we’re going to put in a whole house generator for longer power outages but I’ve been putting that large expense off for as long as I can. The day is coming though.

But, there’s another reason: The cable company’s VOIP system uses our landline cordless phones, phones that I’d love to get away from.

Both my wife and I were late adopters of cell phones, we didn’t see a big need early on and since both of us are not big fans of long phone conversations, the idea of allowing others to call us any time and interrupt whatever we were doing did not appeal (it still doesn’t, we prefer texting). Couple that with the fact that Northwest Connecticut is very hilly and for a long time had sparse cellular coverage and the fact that cell phone plans are expensive and you have a recipe for staying away from cell phones.

When the first iPhone came out I didn’t get one although I was dying to. Again, I wasn’t already a cell phone user so didn’t have a need except to get the latest great Apple product (which is a real need that must be fed, within limits). A year later when my mother’s health started to deteriorate and I felt like I should be more available to emergency phone calls I decided it was time I got a cell phone.

I went down to the AT&T store and got their cheapest POS flip phone with their cheapest plan. I was getting this for emergencies, not to use all the time.

I got the AT&T flip phone home and started plugging in names and numbers and was immediately frustrated, it was as stupid a process as our landline phones. I knew that there was a better way, and the idea of having yet another device that required its own data input seemed stupid when I had a complete contact list on my computer.

Literally later the same day I went back to the AT&T store and upgraded to an iPhone 3G. I did this not because I wanted a smartphone, I did this because I wanted to be able to sync my names, addresses, and phone numbers to the phone. I already had a well massaged and updated address book on my Mac so it was just a matter of syncing all that stuff in addition to my iCal calendars over. That was my motivation, not all the other great stuff that the iPhone offered that I found out about later. I already had a MobileMe account set up although hadn’t used it for much (thank god, it was buggy) so I was set up for this.

The rest is history but my reason for getting an iPhone remains important in this discussion.

We are still left with a POS Panasonic landline cordless phone and two (one) AT&T landlines. We got AT&T to give us a microcell which we have on our home network and that gives us full cellular coverage in the house although with wifi and Messages we need it less.

Could we dump the landline and just go all cellular? For us that’s not possible. If we lose power our network and microcell are gone and without the microcell we don’t have good enough cellular reception to rely 100% on cell to call 911 or or anyone else.

Are landlines on the way out completely? I don’t know but I do know that we’ve got to use them at least for a few more years.

Here’s an idea for Apple: produce a box, call it ApplePhone that does for landline telephones what Apple TV does for TV and streaming media.

Allow me to use my iPhone to interact with my landline: dial numbers and talk on the phone, eliminating the Panasonic landline phone completely.

Just like Messages can be smart (sort of) and get smarter about using wifi instead of cellular to save cellular minutes, maybe ApplePhone or, the Phone app on the iPhone could be smart about routing calls. If you’re home and there’s an ApplePhone box available, when you call someone the call is routed that way so as to avoid cellular charges, or, better yet, its routed over FaceTime Voice to avoid landline usage.

To me, it seems like there ought to be a middle way instead of putting up more towers and everything going to cellular.

Could Apple clean up my living room?

Why Are TV Remotes So Terrible?

This short NPR piece is interesting and it overlaps nicely with the speculation that Apple is cooking up something in the TV area beyond the current Apple TV.

I don’t agree that the primary reason remotes suck is because there are now more channels, it’s easy enough to plug any channel number into a remote number pad. The reason remotes suck is because there are now more devices and each has it’s own operating system and remote, most of which have no clue about the others. The assumption in the NPR piece is that everything I want to watch is on cable or the internet but in fact, most of Netflix’ movies are still DVD-only and I own a lot of DVD/Blu-rays that I like to watch as well.

Also, I am watching at least some content via my computer although that’s less a matter of choosing the computer or the internet, more a matter of how I find out about it and where I’m sitting in my house when I do. However, even though I thought Apple might do this a while back, the last thing I want is a huge iMac in my living room. While there is no doubt that TV will get more interactive, I’d prefer to use my MacBook Pro or my iPad to get non-TV content while sitting in the living room. The idea of surfing the web on an HD TV while sitting on a couch, driving the entire thing with Siri (voice) or an iPhone remote app doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer to do that kind of stuff which involves a lot of reading in a more intimate setting.

Our TV/media process (in the year 2013)

Everyone has a different setup and a different process, this is what we have at the moment. We do not watch a lot of TV and when we do watch TV it’s usually a single channel. We don’t channel surf looking for content. But, we watch a lot of movies and so, we have a collection of remotes and interactions to make it all work.

We have a three year old 52″ (should have bought a 55″) Sony “Bravia” HD TV set that has a great picture and incredibly bad operating system software and a bad remote. Deciding on it over other models was very much like buying a camera these days: do you want image quality or do you want a decent user interface, because there is no one camera or TV set that has it all. Frankly, the user interface on almost all TVs sucks so the analogy isn’t all that good.

Connected to our TV we have an old Bose 3-2-1 DVD/stereo system with speakers, a cable box from our cable provider, a DVD/Blu-Ray player, and an Apple TV. Each of these things has a remote and while we don’t use all the remotes all the time, they have to interact with one another in small ways to make it all work. This is much like the old days when one had to switch the TV to channel 3 or 4 to get the VCR to show through, which my wife finally got just as things changed to what they are now.

The Sony TV set has four HDMI inputs and we use three of them:

HDMI 1: Cable box
HDMI 2: Sony DVD/Blu-ray player
HDMI 3: Apple TV

Watching cable TV

The cable box is powered on all the time and it has an awful remote which we use mostly to switch between two PBS stations: Connecticut Public Television (09) and New York Public Television or “13” (22). if there’s a big event we might watch CNN or MSNBC but that’s rare. I watch John Stewart and Rachel Maddow on my computer. If we lose power the cable box usually resets itself but it defaults to a channel we don’t watch so I’ve got to reset it to 09 using the awful remote. For the most part, the awful cable box remote is tucked away, out of sight. Thank god, it looks like a ray gun out of a Flash Gordon movie.

Since the cable box is on all the time all we have to do to watch TV is turn the TV on with its remote, wait for it to warm up (yes, it has to load its settings and if you jump the gun it gets cranky) and if it’s not already set to HDMI 1 (cable box/TV) cycle the inputs to HDMI 1. The Sony TV is so sluggish in responding to hitting the input button that it can be frustrating and even though I know it’s sluggishness well, I find myself going around the cycle numerous times to get what I want. We don’t (well, I don’t) like the sound that comes out of the TV speakers and so I mute them and turn on the Bose and make sure it’s set to “TV.” Usually I leave the Bose on and set to TV so this step isn’t always necessary but muting the Sony TV always is and I’ve not found a way to tell the Sony TV that we have other, primary speakers (this may be possible but I’ve not figured out how to do it). I also have never found a way to mute the TV’s startup sound, which is obnoxious. But, this means that once the TV is set to the right input the remote that gets used most is the Bose remote to control sound volume.

Watching a DVD

If I want to watch a Netflix DVD I turn on the TV with its remote, cycle to HDMI input 2, mute the TV’s sound, open the DVD drawer of the Sony DVD/Blu-ray player, drop in the DVD, and close the drawer, turn on the Bose (sound) if it’s not on and make sure it’s on TV. One of the reasons we stopped using the Bose DVD player, besides wanting to watch an occasional Blu-ray which it can’t play, is that the HDMI port on it was very finicky and if you didn’t get the TV cycled to HDMI 4 (it’s input) before putting in the DVD, the handshake sometimes didn’t happen. The Sony Blu-ray player doesn’t suffer from that, thank god. But, it has the same Sony user interface as our TV (called Bravia). Most of the time putting in a disc pushes through the Sony operating system and it simply starts playing. I attempt to end-run previews when I can with a single button on the Sony DVD/Blu-ray remote or, if the DVD locks me out of that I fast forward through them (again, using the Sony DVD/Blu-ray remote) if we don’t get caught up in them.

Hitting a single “play” button on the Sony DVD remote will start things and unless we want to pause or get to a particular scene, I don’t need that remote anymore. I pick up the Bose remote to control sound.

Watching streaming content using Apple TV

If I want to use Apple TV to watch a Netflix streaming video or some other piece of Apple TV content the process is similar: Turn on TV with its remote and cycle to HDMI 3 and mute its sound, turn on Apple TV with its (too small) remote, find the content I want and start playing it, controlling sound with the Bose remote and pausing with the Apple remote.

I have the Apple TV remote app on both my iPhone and iPad and while it’s novel and sometimes useful I don’t use it all that much. I don’t like the size of the Apple TV remote (too small in my hand) but I find using it’s physical buttons easier than the virtual buttons on it’s iOS counterpart.

But, that could easily change and it’s a heck of a lot easier to change a software interface than to put out a new physical remote every time someone comes up with a better idea.

In short, I have a pile of five remotes lying around, all of which are necessary, all of which are hard to use and using them in conjunction with one another is akin to having to have a TV tuned to channel 3 to watch a videotape plus layers of other conditions. It’s all rather stupid.

And, that leads me back to speculation about what Apple might be doing to clean this up.

Apple TV in the big sense

Now that Apple is a big company, has millions of customers who are hooked into iOS, and is known for its design chops, there is an opportunity here and I think they’ve got their foot in its door with Apple TV and the (for now) crude iOS Remote app.

I’ve never been one to think that Apple is building a new, self-contained television set (and yes, I’ve been reading the recent speculation about Apple and LG doing just that), Sony, Samsung, and others and others have that covered and there are too many variables in the TV set market to have the kind of small, tighter offering there that Apple would typically present. Best to let people buy their own screens and treat them like computer monitors, going after the experience of building a platform for the control of what gets presented on the screen.

By connecting the current Apple TV to a television set and allowing it to end-run much of the television set’s operating system, Apple is at least some of the way there. In order for the grand scheme to work both the current Apple TV box (or some future one) and the iOS Remote app would simply need to learn about more things connected to Apple TV, and/or, the HDMI interface would need to be able to do things that it currently can’t do.

Or, maybe the reason people think Apple is working on an all in one solution here is because it’s not possible to control all of this disparate stuff with a single box and software.

I’m wondering how successful Bose has been with their VideoWave offering. This certainly solves at least some of the remote and speaker problems but one still needs a cable box, a DVD/Blu-ray player, and an Apple TV and/or Roku to get streaming.

If, in some future world, all movie and TV content was streaming over the internet then Apple could easily build control of it into a box like Apple TV and have a single remote control it all, be it a physical remote or an iOS app. If one wanted better sound than a TV has then somehow that sound would need to be controlled by whatever controls the TV. No doubt this is doable now.

But, as Netflix subscribers know, there is a large offset between its content available on DVD and the amount of that stuff you can get via streaming with a lot more content available in physical form. No doubt one reason for this is that if everything was streamed the internet would melt under the weight of it all. We haven’t had a streaming “choke” in over a year now and no doubt there would be plenty of choking if Netflix put it all out via streaming. But, the other reason they can’t is akin to why Apple can’t get control of the cable box: content providers have rules about distribution that Apple and others can’t get around.

So it remains a big mess.

Grand Unification

On the one hand, we absolutely love our big TV and sound system and watching a movie like Avatar on a smaller screen with TV set sound is just not the same experience. But, as it is, the process of making that happen is currently a kludge and there is an opportunity for Apple and/or others to make it better. I think it’s just a matter of time before they do.

For me there is a tension between having a company like Apple build a TV set/media center that does it all and putting together my own system of pieces that do each piece better. The liability of separate pieces is five different operating systems, five different remotes, etc. The liability of one company building a TV that does it all is that no doubt some of the all won’t be what I want. Apple is pretty good at figuring out what I want so if there’s a company to do this kind of thing it would be Apple, but as both a user and a stockholder it makes me both hopeful and uneasy.

TED talks on Netflix

TED expands its reach with streaming talks on Netflix

Netflix streaming library doesn’t have all the deep content their DVD library has but it has plenty of gems and there’s enough content up there to justify an AppleTV if you’re into such things.

Now you can watch TED talks on your computer, iPad, iPhone or, your TV.

Searching for stuff like this on AppleTV is tough but setting up a nice, fat Netflix streaming que on your computer is easy. Here’s the beginning of a TED list to add to your que if you’re into such things: TED Talks on Netflix.

Google TV

Google TV product manager Rishi Chandra: ‘Android is going to be a successful operating system on TVs’

Watch the video. Nilay Patel interviews Rishi Chandra on GoogleTV, Android’s future as an OS for televisions, cable boxes, DVRs, and other TV add-ons.

Not a single mention of Apple TV, iOS, or any of Apple’s work in this area except to say that they believe Android will dominate in the tablet area (toward the end of the interview).

If you listen to the interview, the complexity of the various things Google is doing sounds much like listening to Steve Balmer talk about how Windows will be integrated into everything. As many know, Microsoft is having difficulty in this area and while Android may be doing well as an OS, the universe of gadgets that run various flavors of it is a mess.

I love the simplicity of Apple TV, AirPlay and using my iPhone or iPad as a remote. Did you see those Google TV remotes? Ugh.

No doubt the internet is affecting the future of broadcast and cable TV and it may be a wide open market right now. I can tell you that the Bravia operating system Sony builds into its TVs is awful and I stay out of those menus on my TV as much as possible. I want to use my Sony TV as a dumb flat screen for some future Apple device (Apple TVX) that controls everything simply and easily. No doubt that’s coming soon.

Speculation on future Apple TV

Guy English: How I’d Build an Apple Television Set

The piece of Guy’s essay that appeals to me most is this:

So if you’re in an Apple based household the odds are good that your new Apple TV will be able to talk to one of your other devices and get the required network info from it. I’d bet heavily that this capability makes its way into AirPort devices and Macs. “Want to let this device on your network?”, is exactly the level of simplicity that Apple tends to aim for.

Setting up and using an AirPort network is much simpler than any of the other wifi routers I’ve played with over the years and my guess is that Apple is going to continue to make it simpler to add new devices to the network, including the Apple TV. It’s easy now and it will be even easier which is part of the puzzle of making a living room appliance that’s easy to use and integrate with other devices you already own.

I’m not entirely convinced that Apple will get into the flat panel TV business but I’m convinced that they’ll expand the capabilities of the current Apple TV, turning a Sony or Samsung flat panel TV set into a dumb HD screen, which is fine by me, I hate the menus on my Sony Bravia.

[via Steve Splonskowski]

Apple TV is amazing

I recently ordered quite a bit of new gear from Apple including an Apple TV. First, some background:

In the past year we upgraded our old tube TV to a relatively large (40″ and now I wish we’d gone bigger) HD set and it’s been wonderful for the small amount of PBS television and the large number of movies we watch, well, I watch. Anne would rather read but tunes in when she’s interested.

My stepdaughter Jessica gave me a great demo of the NetFlix web site and service a year ago and sold me on it, we’ve been happy subscribers ever since. I rarely stream movies on my computer and had not bought a Roku box for the TV, preferring an Apple product if I have a choice.

So, we had all the ingredients for considering an Apple TV and after doing some research I finally understood what it did. In short, I think it’s one of the most interesting products Apple has ever produced but few people really understand it and it may take a while to take off.

We have an AirPort Extreme router upstairs in the office that easily covers the entire house and yard with WIFI but I also had an AirPort Express downstairs connected to it via ethernet running in the walls. This enabled us to play music and streaming radio from our computers, wirelessly via an optical cable that ran between the AirPort Express and our stereo. It worked like a charm for many years.

Apple TV replaced the AirPort Express which is now sitting in a drawer.

Here’s how it hooks up and how it works

1. Plug in Apple TV (to power).

2. Connect Apple TV to ethernet or use wirelessly to connect to your network.

3. Run HDMI cable out of Apple TV into your HD TV.

That’s it on the hardware side. No router configuration needed, nothing.

4. Turn on TV, cycle to the HDMI input that Apple TV is on.

5. Run through a very short setup menu using Apple TV remote to navigate.

6. Use menus to find NetFlix. Log in with username and password.

You’re now set to browse and stream movies. Four minutes after opening the Apple TV box I was watching a movie.

We’re not dropping NetFlix DVDs even with the recent price increase because not enough of their content is streamable but as more content is digitized more people will opt out of getting DVDs and save some money.

7. Use menus to find flickr. Login to your account.

You’re now set to run slide shows of your work or anyone else’s on your HD TV. Trust me, it looks great.

8. Run iTunes and choose Apple TV as the output and whatever you’re playing will show up on your TV or play out of your connected speakers, wirelessly.

9. Use Apple TV menu to find radio. Steam your favorite NPR station in real time instead of attempting to pick it up via broadcast. Works like a charm.

AirTunes
Now, with iOS 4.2 you can stream both iPhone and iPad to Apple TV wirelessly without going through a computer. This is called AirPlay and it’s one of the killer capabilities of this system.

Start watching a movie on your iPad, decide you want to watch it on your big TV so choose AirPlay on iPad, make sure TV is on and HDMI input is set to Apple TV and your movie appears on the TV. It’s that simple. This can be done from an iPad and iPod Touch or an iPhone. Anne and I just experimented with both of our iPhones and an iPad and it works flawlessly for both music and video.

Holy ####!

Let me repeat, we don’t watch a lot of TV, this is not about TV alone (although Apple and NetFlix have a lot of streaming TV available through Apple TV), this is about getting all of your digital media playing in a central place for everyone to see.

Apple TV isn’t going to be for everyone but I can say without a doubt that it’s a joy to set up and use and it does what it’s supposed to do flawlessly. And, at $99 it’s not so expensive that people who understand what it does will avoid it because of price.

Apple used to have a marketing strategy called “digital hub” which put an iMac in the center of your digital life. Apple TV is like a branch of a more distributed home digital network and it’s going to slowly give Apple a way into the living room.